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NLRB gives boost to speedier union elections

“When workers petition for an NLRB election, they should receive a timely opportunity to vote,” AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said in a statement. (Nick Ut/AP)

The National Labor Relations Board on Wednesday resurrected a proposal to implement new rules aimed at speeding up unionization elections, a move applauded by organized labor groups that have seen a steady decline in membership.

The labor board’s proposed amendments are identical to ones that the politically divided board was on the verge of enacting in late 2011. That previous attempt to simplify the rules was invalidated by a federal court that found problems with the approval process.

The latest version of the proposed rule change was approved by the NLRB’s three Democratic members, while the two Republican appointees dissented.

The board said the proposed changes would make it easier for workers to vote to create a union. Under the proposed rules, labor organizers would be able to distribute information about the elections electronically, for example. Also litigation over some issues related to voter eligibility would be delayed until after workers vote on whether to form a union.

As the share of workers in unions has slipped from 20.1 percent to 11.3 percent over the past three decades, organized labor has searched for ways to bolster its ranks. When President Obama took office in 2009, there was widespread hope among union leaders that lawmakers would enact the Employee Free Choice Act. That bill would have allowed workers to form unions without elections if more than half of a proposed bargaining union signed registration cards. But that effort never got far.

At present, workers must hold an NLRB-sanctioned election after filing a petition to organize a union. For years, union leaders have voiced concern that it takes too long after an organizing petition is filed to hold an election to determine whether workers want to create a union. The votes were often pushed back for weeks to manually distribute information and to appeal rulings by regional NLRB officials. The delays, union leaders complained, gave employers too much time to campaign to disrupt organizing efforts.

“When workers petition for an NLRB election, they should receive a timely opportunity to vote,” AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said in a statement. “But the current NLRB election process is riddled with delay and provides too many opportunities for employers to manipulate and drag out the process through costly and unnecessary litigation and deny workers a vote.”

When the rule change was last proposed in 2011, employer groups including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce said the change would make it more difficult for them to make their case against unionization.

The proposed rule change has a 75-day public comment period and will be subject to a public hearing in early April. After that it could be revised before going into effect.

Michael A. Fletcher is a national economics correspondent, writing about unemployment, state and municipal debt, the evolving job market and the auto industry.
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